By Peter Letkemann
Journal of Mennonite Studies 16
Canadian Conference of MB Churches
December of 1998
Sparked by the work of Harvey Dyck and an international team of scholars,
Mennonites in many parts of the world have chosen 1998 to commemorate the
victims of terror and repression in the former Soviet Union.
My contribution to this commemoration has been the compilation of a
comprehensive name-list of victims, a continuation of the work begun some
twenty years ago by George K. Epp.
To date I have gathered well over 15,000 names, together with
countless personal memoirs, letters, poems and photographs. This material
should be ready for publication by the end of next year.
In this, the second in a three-part series of articles, I can offer only a
brief glimpse into the years from Fall 1929 to June 22 1941. This was a
tragic period during which all Mennonites in the Soviet Union - men and
women, young and old - endured the agony of hunger and disease, and the loss
of loved ones sent into exile as "kulaks," or imprisoned and executed as
"enemies of the people."
Compared to the millions of deaths in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the Volga
region, the number of Mennonites who starved during the great terror-famine
of 1932-33 was relatively small, thanks again in part to the assistance
provided by North American and European Mennonites. Only 22 deaths were
reported in the Khortitsa region and 213 in the Zagradovka villages.1 The
total of 265 victims in the Mennonite villages west of the Dnieper
represented just over 1% of the population. Other Mennonite regions also
seem to have recorded few losses.
The majority of victims during the twelve-year period from Fall 1929 to June
1941 fall into the categories of those who were dekulakized
(entkulakisiert), or those who were arrested (verhaftet) and executed or
sent to the Gulag.
Families selected for "dekulakization" were disenfranchised (deprived of the
right to vote), dispossessed (robbed of their livestock, machinery and
household possessions), and evicted from their homes. Some were allowed to
remain in their villages, at least temporarily, living with family or
friends, or in make-shift hovels on the outskirts of the village. Others
were banished from the village but allowed to remain in the region. Many
were sent to newly established "kulak" settlements, such as Oktoberfeld and
Neuhof in the Molochnaia region.2
Some families (including that of my own grandfather), recognizing the fate
that awaited them, chose to flee the village before they could be exiled.
Many sought refuge in large industrial towns such as Zaporozhie or Stalino
(now Donetzk), or in the Caucasus.
The number of families "dekulakized" per village varied from region to
region, and ranged from 10% to 25% of the population. In the four villages
of the Yazykovo Settlement (Nikolaipol, Franzfeld, Hochfeld and Adelsheim),
54 families (some 200 persons, or 11% of the population) were dekulakized,
but not all were exiled. Of the 11 families evicted from Franzfeld in 1930,
only five were shipped to the North; 6 families, including that of my
great-grandfather David Letkemann, were sent to other settlements in the
In Nieder Khortitsa 12 families were evicted - 8 were allowed to resettle
within the region, while 4 were exiled to Siberia. One of these families was
that of Heinrich Pankratz. In the summer of 1929 they were dekulakized and
sent to live in a poor Lehmhütte (clay hut) outside the village of Kronstal.
They were given a small parcel of land to grow potatoes and vegetables. The
following year they were resettled to Neuendorf, along with many other
"kulak" families. In Spring 1931 they were loaded onto freight cars at the
Kanzerovka station and shipped to Sverdlovsk.4
A report from Molochnaia relates that over 230 families were evicted from
their homes early in 1930. The first group of 34 families were loaded into
freight cars and shipped to Tomsk, Siberia. Ten days later another 200
families were evicted from their homes and sent to a new kulak settlement
In the Crimea, 24 Mennonite families were exiled from Spat on 24 April
1930.6 In the Trakt Settlement, 41 families (199 persons), or about 15% of
the population, were exiled to Karaganda in the summer of 1931.7
In the settlement of Alexandertal (Alt-Samara) a total of 55 families (331
persons) were exiled during the years 1930-31. The first 36 families (233
persons) were exiled on 30 March 1930 - sent by train to Arkhangelsk, 837
km. north of Moscow, and unloaded in the wilderness. They established the
settlement of Kholmoleyevo, where all able-bodied men and women, even young
boys and girls of 16, were required to do forestry work. Statistics for
Kholmoloyevo are appalling: 49 persons died within the first year, 81
persons were subsequently arrested and shipped on to prisons or other labour
camps. Three more groups of families were exiled from Alexandertal in 1931:
in January 1931, the Hermann Riesen family (5 persons) and the David Janzen
family (5 persons) were exiled to the Omsk region. Four families (31
persons) were exiled in February 1931 to the region beyond Lake Baikal in
Siberia. In June 1931 another twelve families (52 persons) were exiled to
Kazakhstan. These 55 "dekulakized" families represented 25 percent of the
population of Alexandertal!8
In total, I would estimate that at least 2,000 Mennonite families - more
than 10,000 persons - were "dekulakized" during the years 1929-32. I have
been able to identify less than a quarter of them by name.
The "dekulakization" campaign was accompanied by a vigorous anti-religious
campaign. Many ministers, deacons, and choir directors were arrested and
exiled - in some cases wives and families voluntarily went into exile with
their husbands and fathers.
Arrests began in the late 1920s and escalated during the course of the
1930s. Several hundred men and women were arrested in November 1929 in
Moscow; some are known to have died in prison, but most were released after
several weeks and sent into exile together with their families.
Comparatively few Mennonites were arrested or exiled during the ensuing
years from 1933-1935. In villages west of the Dnieper, for example, there
were a total of only 70 arrests: 27 in 1933 (10 of these in Einlage), 19
arrests in 1934, and 24 arrests in 1935.
Since few Mennonites were members of the Communist Party, few were affected
by Stalin's purge of the Party, which began early in 1933 and ended
officially on December 26 1935.
Among those arrested in 1933-36 were the remaining Mennonite religious
leaders, including men such as Aeltester Heinrich Winter and Aaron P. Toews,
who had somehow escaped arrest during the earlier "dekulakization" campaign
of 1929-32. These arrests were part of Stalin's ongoing assault against
traditional religious and moral values. By the end of 1936 most churches had
been closed and the buildings confiscated by the state. They were turned
into clubhouses, theatres or warehouses.
Some 8,000 to 9,000 Mennonite men were arrested during the "Great Terror,"
which began in the Fall of 1936 and ended by late 1938. The majority were
taken between June 1937 and August 1938. A small number of women were also
taken, especially in the large industrial centres such as Khortitsa (9
arrests) and Einlage (17 arrests).
Fairly complete lists are available for forty-nine Mennonite villages in
Ukraine west of the Dnieper River - including the settlements of Khortitsa,
Yazykovo, Zagradovka, Nepluievka, Borozenko and Shlachtin-Baratov. For the
period 1937-38, these lists show a total of more than 1,800 arrests (8.2% )
in an estimated 1937 population of 22,000 persons. Figures for the
Molochnaia villages also show about 1,800 arrests in a population of 20,000
The ratio of arrests varied considerably from one village to another. For
example, in the village of Blumenfeld (Nepluievka) 37 men (14%) of an
estimated 250 inhabitants were arrested during the "Great Terror"; in the
village of Bahndorf (Orlovo) in the Memrik settlement, 26 men (8.6%) from a
population of 300 persons were arrested between May 1937 and February 1938.
In the village of Kondratievka (Borissovo Settlement) the ratio was even
higher: 75 men (18%) from an estimated population of 400 persons were
arrested during the years 1937-38.
On the other hand, in Alexanderkrone (Zagradovka) only two of its 170
inhabitants were arrested. The village of Rosengart (Khortitsa) also
suffered relatively few arrests - only ten men (3.3%) were taken. The reason
cited in contemporary sources for this "lenient treatment" was that Soviet
officials used Rosengart as a model collective farm to display to the many
foreign visitors who came to view the nearby Dnieprostroi hydro-electric
In total, an estimated 10,000 Mennonites were arrested in the years
1933-1941 (to date I have identified 3,720 by name). This number seems
small, even insignificant, when compared with the millions of arrest victims
in the Soviet Union as a whole. Statistically, the arrest ratio among
Mennonites was at least four times higher than the national average revealed
in recent KBG statistics.9
The end of the "Great Terror" in 1938 did not bring an end to the suffering
of the Mennonites. There was a brief respite after the signing of the Treaty
of Non-Agression between Germany and the USSR on August 23, 1939, but the
German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 fanned the flames of
the Inferno anew. The fateful consequences will be discussed in the closing
article of this series.
Karl Stumpp, Bericht über das Gebiet Kronau-Orloff (Berlin, 1943), "Tafel A"
and Bericht über das Gebiet Choritza (Berlin, 1943), 7. The most
comprehensive study of this famine is Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
J.A. Neufeld, Tiefenwege, p.44; see also the poem "Oktoberfeld, du öder und
verlass'ner Ort" in Mennonitische Rundschau, 29 Oct 1930, 10.
Julius Loewen, Jasykowo, p.56.
Information provided by Sonia (Pankratz) Klassen.
"Brief aus Süd-Russland," Mennonitische Rundschau 11 Jun 1930, 7.
Aron Toews, Mennonitische Märtyrer, volume 1, 106.
Information provided by correspondence with Johannes Bergmann.
Information provided by correspondence with Wilhelm Claassen and Jakob
Peter Letkemann, "Mennonite Victims of 'The Great Terror,' 1936-1938,"
Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998), 35-37.
Peter Letkemann is an organist and historian living in Winnipeg.
Mennonite Heritage Centre and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies